No matter who you voted for in this presidential election, we certainly witnessed history. Since the early morning hours of November 9, emotions have run high, and stayed high. The election rhetoric from President-Elect Donald Trump was divisive, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton herself is a polarizing figure, which has lead people to draw firm lines in the sand.  This election, like no other in recent memory, has left the country strongly divided.

Whether you supported President-Elect Trump or Secretary Clinton, chances are there is someone in your family that supported the other candidate.  And it’s possible you’re going to have to sit across the table from that person at Thanksgiving or Christmas.  The holidays are usually a tense time when family members that don’t often see each other are brought together for an extended period. Adding the results of the 2016 election into the mix is a recipe for an explosion.

Remember, since children are likely to be present at these gatherings, it’s not just our own well being that you have to worry about, but the little eyes and ears that will be nearby. Here are some tips:

You Don’t Have to Go

If you feel a situation might be unsafe for you or your kids, it’s OK not to go.  It’s also OK not to go if you feel that you or a loved one might say something in this heightened state that can’t be taken back, or if it’s likely that your child will witness an explosive argument.  You don’t necessarily have to make it a principled stand, but make it clear that by not going you’re putting your relationship with your loved one ahead of politics. You can say, “I’m afraid that things are too tense right now and we might say things we can’t take back and I love you too much to risk that.”  This assertion may drive a good conversation. One should be a proactive as possible to resolve potential conflict.   If you decide not to go, reaffirm that you want to keep the lines of communication open when cooler heads prevail.

If You’ve Decided to Go

If you’ve decided to go to a family gathering and know that someone from the “other side” will be there, it’s a good idea to evaluate what your goals are heading into the holidays.  Do you want to have a happy gathering, do you want your kids to see and enjoy time with their relatives, do you want to be in a familiar place with familiar faces or do you want to have a heartfelt conversation with a relative on the “other side” about why you feel the way you do?  Whatever your goal for the holidays you need to keep it in mind throughout the holidays so they don’t get derailed.

Before you go, set a few ground rules with your friends and/or family about political conversations. I am not saying you should “build a wall” around the subject, but set some reasonable boundaries around how you’re all willing to have the conversation.  Something as simple as a phone call or a polite email ahead of time agreeing not to talk about politics, or agreeing to end the conversation when someone says a code word, or agree to not talk about politics when the kids are around, can diffuse the situation ahead of time.

When You’re There

In tense situations like these, many of us tend to reach for a drink, but alcohol often only makes things worse. It’s always a good idea to have your wits about you when you drink, but the holidays can tempt us to overindulge.  Alcohol, families and politics are, of course, an explosive mix, so it’s a good idea to take care to not overindulge this year.

Don’t be a sore winner/loser.  Don’t look for opportunities to gloat or rub salt in the wound.  If the football game is interrupted by a breaking news alert about a new cabinet appointment, now is not the time to slide in a “well she got more votes,” or a “Trump is going to drain the swamp.”

Please, please, please don’t have intense arguments in front of small kids. They need to feel secure around you as parents and the other adults in their lives.  If the kids are in the room or in earshot, be prepared to quickly agree to disagree.

If a disagreement happens between relatives and the kids are within earshot, take the kids out of the room.  Maybe it’s a good time for the annual family game of football outside, maybe there’s a rebroadcast of the Thanksgiving Day Parade on TV in the other room, maybe you “lost your keys” and you need their help to find them.

If an argument happens and the kids are safely occupied elsewhere, don’t add fuel to the fire. Get your referee outfit on and attempt to mediate or cool things down. There is typically a certain point in an argument where both sides realize that nobody is really “winning”. That may be a good time to remind people that potatoes need to be mashed and carrots peeled.

Give yourself a break or take space if needed.  Biting your tongue and loving people even though you strongly disagree with them is hard work.  Take a walk, take an extended bathroom break, go color with the kids, do whatever you need to do to practice a little self care.

How to Have the Conversation
If you go into the holidays convinced you’re going to convince the “other side” that they’re wrong and you’re right, you’re probably not going to succeed, and you’ll likely permanently damage your relationship with family members.  The communication science is clear, telling someone that they’re wrong, yelling or claiming to have the moral upper hand doesn’t change someone’s opinion.  What does?  Finding common ground, empathy and frankly having a lot of people to support your position (we sometimes call these social norms). And even at that there are just some people who won’t change their minds.  You need to decide if you value your relationship with the person more than their position on a topic.

If the Worst Happens

Let’s say you’ve done all the right things and tempers still boil over.  There’s yelling, finger pointing, maybe even an f-bomb or two are dropped. What do you do now?

Whether you’re witnessing the explosion, or a part of it, I’d recommend you do the same thing: tell your family member(s) that you love them but it’s not appropriate for the kids to witness this kind of exchange. Everybody may just need a time out or a break outside. Going “to your corners” for about 10 minutes may help.

A decision to leave may be difficult but necessary. If you need to leave, thank the host or hostess, say you can talk later when cooler heads prevail, but right now you need to leave.  Calmly tell your kids it’s time to go, gather your things, say your goodbyes and leave.

If your kids witnessed the blow up, they will likely have questions.  Answer their questions in an age appropriate manner, using language they understand.  Do not get into why you felt the other person was wrong, that’s not helpful.  All they need to know is that sometimes people who love each other very much disagree, and sometimes when they disagree they yell, even though they know they shouldn’t.  While it can be hard, you need to remain as neutral as possible to preserve the child’s relationship with their relative.

Finally, as we gather around for both Thanksgiving and other upcoming holidays let’s try to remain civil. This is a unique chapter in our nation’s history. The complexity of this election cycle created strong feelings for people. Let’s not make things more complex within our families. Please give space for opinions but also give space for caring and respect.

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Categories: Mental, Emotional, + Behavioral Health, Policy, Politics, + Pop Health